Anne and I have a twice-yearly tradition of spending our respective birthdays together traveling to some new place or attraction as a one-day road trip — partly as an excuse to spend time together on those most wondrous days, partly to explore areas of Indiana we’ve never experienced before. (Usually Indiana, anyway.) We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.
Once upon a time on October 12, 2010, the two of us drove a quick hour south from Indianapolis to the city of Columbus. Though it’s much the same size as a lot of other Indiana cities we’ve visited statewide over the years, its visuals aren’t interchangeable. Thanks to a combination of factors — including significant funding from Cummins, the local engine manufacturer of considerable size — Columbus has become a haven for Modernist architecture, some of it overseen by big names in the field. It quite sincerely looks like no other town around.
We paid our visit eighteen months prior to MCC’s launch. It’s been on my to-do list of road-trip catch-up entries ever since. It inched closer to the front burner in 2017 when a genuine film crew came to Columbus, shot for three weeks, and the end result became an indie film called Columbus. Starring the John Cho and Split’s Haley Lu Richardson, the story follows two disparate strangers whose lives intersect as they’re heading in opposite directions. Richardson is the hometown girl who’s graduated and has the potential to do better things, but is afraid to go off to college because she has to take care of her ex-addict mom (Homicide‘s Michelle Forbes). Cho is an out-of-towner beholden to an extended visit when his father, a renowned architect and touring lecturer, has come to town only to be hospitalized with potentially terminal issues that have left him too weak to be moved elsewhere.
She should leave but thinks she can’t; he can’t leave but wishes he could. They meet; they chat; they learn things. Director Kogonada stages their messes in front of various Columbus buildings and structures, distinct and imposing in their designs — “asymmetrical yet balanced,” as one character puts it. That’s also a fair summation of where their lives are at the end. It’s not a romantic film per se (their 22-year age difference is addressed and does not get the standard Hollywood hall pass), but it’s a fine showcase for the increasingly versatile Cho (see also last year’s excellent Searching) and for relative newcomer Richardson (who later went on to Support the Girls and this year’s cystic fibrosis romance 5 Feet Apart), and includes worthy supporting roles for indie champ Parker Posey and overlooked actor-brother Rory Culkin as the sidelined best friend who gets a nifty speech about the short-sightedness of criticizing other people’s attention spans.
I missed Columbus during its short stint here in one (1) Indy theater, but it’s now available on Kanopy for anyone with a library card in a participating system. So I caught up and recognized quite a few places Anne and I saw eight years ago. As it so happens, I was even more reminded of it last week (the day before my birthday) when I heard the news about the passing of celebrated architect I.M. Pei at age 102. Pei was among the many contributors to the downtown Columbus skyline, though it was just one building, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library completed in 1969. As it so happens, it’s the same library where Richardson’s character works.
In front of the library is “Large Arch” by British sculptor Henry Moore, installed in 1971. Pei personally recommended Moore for the job with the expectation that his art style would stand in stark contrast with Pei’s rigid lines and structure. Twenty feet tall, twelve feet wide, 5½ tons of bronze — asymmetrical yet balanced, as it were. Richardson is seen pacing around “Large Arch” in a few scenes.
Across the street from the library is First Christian Church, a 1941 creation of Eliel Saarinen (with some interior touches by his renowned father Eero), who’s name-checked in the film more than once. Next to the main church building is a 166-foot tower that intentionally breaks from ye olde-fashioned church design tradition of yore. Modernist on the outside, fundamentals on the inside.
Kogonada’s steady cameras glimpsed a few locations we didn’t. We saw a few more places that didn’t make the cut. I did spot a few other places we all caught. His shots were more composed than ours and had the advantage of a poetic, contemplative screenplay to tie them together, but we did what we could for our own records and reminiscence.
We had lunch at a place called Smiths’ Row, about which we recorded no details and which closed in December 2016, but our calorie intake didn’t stop there. No trip to Columbus would be complete without a stop at Zaharakos, their big deal of an ice cream parlor. A staple since 1900, Zaharakos came to our attention (I’m fairly certain) thanks to glowing mentions in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, who are pretty helpful when it comes to giving us ideas for other Hoosier businesses and talents to check out.
It’s been too long to recall what we ordered, but I assume it ruled and was the best possible way to cap off our Columbus experience. Maybe Cho and Richardson can reunite there in the sequel over a 5-scoop “Big Z” with all the toppings.